City leaders aim to weather Trump's climate change backslide

Global Covenant of Mayors Vice Chair Christiana Figueres during the Cities4Climate 2020 event. Photo by: Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy

With Donald Trump in the White House, advocates for international cooperation on climate change have begun to look elsewhere for environmental leadership.

City leaders are ready to step in, working with a willing private sector, and delivering solutions to their citizens, Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, told attendees at the Sustainable Energy for All Forum in Brooklyn, New York, on Monday.

Less than a week after U.S. President Trump signaled his intention to dismantle the previous administration’s policies on national climate action, Bloomberg reminded sustainable energy advocates that the real action happens locally. Across the globe, cities, their mayors and the private sector are developing solutions to curb emissions and address climate change impacts.

“The private sector and local governments are where the people are, and that’s where the solutions are, and we’re showing that,” said Bloomberg, who co-chairs the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, an international coalition of cities and local governments dedicated to taking voluntary action on climate change.

Christiana Figueres, who successfully convened nearly 200 countries around the Paris climate agreement as United Nations executive secretary, took a similar view of where to find momentum for climate action.

“The political arena is going to be much more hamstrung, and we will not be able to reach groundbreaking political agreements over the next three to four years, but we are every day reaching groundbreaking innovations in the real economy, most of them in cities,” Figueres said Monday.

Trump signed an executive order on “energy independence” last week, rolling back fromer President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and rewriting the way carbon impact is considered in government cost-benefit analyses.

Advocates argued that the order was an invitation for China to step into the international climate leadership void. Beijing would then stand to reap future economic and diplomatic benefits from adopting aggressive renewable energy targets, backing climate finance and urging other countries toward ambitious national plans.

That narrative overstates the amount of leadership the U.S. federal government exhibited in the first place, Bloomberg said.

“It’s hard to cut back from zero — and zero is overstating it, but not by much — of what the federal government did,” Bloomberg said.

He credited Obama with being more “pro-environment” than Trump, but noted that the former president did not pass any climate legislation, relying instead on executive orders that he only issued near the end of his term in office, when they have less “staying power.”

Bloomberg said that mayors are good motivators for policy, because they spur envy in their national level counterparts. Mayors are more accessible to their citizens and to the press, and they tend to generate greater publicity for the initiatives they support in their municipalities.

“Elected officials want publicity, so they can get re-elected and keep their jobs. When national leaders see mayors getting publicity for doing something the public wants, they jump on the bandwagon,” he said.

“This isn’t ethics, this is politics.”

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you free every business day.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.